Switzerland is a country that is at the top of the list for many expats. It’s a wealthy country with a high standard of living and high wages, plus the Swiss landscape is unrivalled in its beauty. Many of the world’s wealthiest people live, do business, and holiday in Switzerland, which makes it one of the best countries in the world for living.
Paradise comes with a price tag, though. Unfortunately, life in Switzerland is quite expensive. Most expats will need a salary higher than the average to enjoy a comfortable life — and much higher than that if they hope for permanent residency. Presumably, you’ve been offered a job in Switzerland or have some type of work lined up, and you’re wondering what it’s like to live in there. In this article, we’ll discuss living in Switzerland as an expat and the barriers you might face.
The majority of people in Switzerland speak German and Swiss German (~60%). But due to the location of Switzerland, there are actually four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. These languages are mostly spoken in the border regions to the south and west of the country. In the workplace, Swiss German is the most spoken language.
Being such a multilingual country, many Swiss people speak three or more languages. As an expat, you might want to consider learning a second language (or third) if you move to Switzerland. It’s best to pick the dominant language in the region that you decide to live. For example, the dominant language in Zurich is Swiss German and in Geneva it is French.
Thankfully, as an English speaker, you’ll be able to communicate with most people in the major cities (Zurich, Geneva, and Bern) since there are many international companies and workers. English is the most commonly spoken non-national language in Switzerland, with about 45% of the population using it regularly.
Navigating multiple languages is difficult, especially if you’ve always lived in English-speaking countries. The language barrier can make it quite difficult for expats to settle in Switzerland and can also feel isolating at times. According to InterNations, expats claim that Switzerland is lonely, and one of the hardest countries to settle in. The country ranks in the bottom ten for local friendliness, finding friends, and culture & welcome. You can address these difficulties by learning the language and getting tapped into an expat network.
Rent Per Month
Apartment (1 bedroom) in City Centre
Apartment (1 bedroom) Outside of Centre
Apartment (3 bedrooms) in City Centre
Apartment (3 bedrooms) Outside of Centre
The first thing on your to-do list when moving to Switzerland will be to find an apartment. As an expat, you’ll most likely be living in one of the major cities, so let’s focus on apartments in or around the city. Renting is far more expensive in Switzerland than say Germany, Austria, or France. Rent prices are most similar to those in London.
A one-bedroom apartment in Zurich is going to cost around 2,561 Fr. (2,649 EUR) per month (Numbeo). To put that cost into perspective, the same apartment in Berlin would cost you 1,250 Fr (half the price) and in Paris 1,264.59 Fr.
What’s the difference between Swiss cities? Rent prices in Geneva are a little lower than Zurich, 2,103 Fr (one-bedroom) and Bern is 1,157 Fr.
Housing outside of the city is going to be cheaper — and thanks to the great train network, commuting from a small town or suburb is feasible and not a major time sink. Different cantons are also going to have different rental prices, Zurich is one of the highest for example, and Jura the lowest.
In terms of renting, there are two options: furnished and unfurnished. Furnished apartments will be more expensive, but you won’t have to acquire furniture and can generally secure a flat much quicker. This is ideal for short term workers (a year or less). If you’re in Switzerland for the long term, an unfurnished flat is going to be cheaper in the long run.
Thankfully, unfurnished apartments in Switzerland come with complete kitchens (dishwasher, stove, and oven) unlike Germany or Austria. What they don’t come with, though, is curtains and light fittings — you’ll have to organise these yourself.
Generally speaking, the more money you are willing to pay, the quicker you’ll find an apartment. There are fewer people bidding on a three bedroom than a one-bedroom apartment.
Word of mouth is the best way to find an apartment in Switzerland. You’ll get the best deals through your colleagues and friends — if they are moving or know someone that is moving, they can get in contact with the real estate agent and secure a deal. Your best chance of success is having the email address of an agent.
The second-best option for finding a place to live is through real estate agencies. You can first start your search through housing websites such as Homegate or Immostreet, there you can find the websites of local real estate agencies. You can email them directly or browse and apply for apartments through their website. For a full breakdown of the entire renting process, you should read this guide.
The second thing you’ll need on arriving is a bank account. Since Switzerland is the finance capital of the world, you have a lot of banking options: retail banks, local canton banks, investment banks, international banks, and neobanks — the choices are endless. For the most part, expats tend to use neobanks, because they are easy to open and close and can be set up in minutes (with English-speaking support). Although, if you’re already with a large international bank, like Barclays or HSBC, you should be able to set up a Swiss bank account through them which makes transferring money smoother (hopefully).
The Swiss neobanks are Yuh, Neon, and Zak — these are apparently quite good. They are online subsidiaries of large retail banks. The only downside is that they are not international, so if you plan on moving somewhere else in Europe they might not be supported. You also want to consider ATM fees and currency exchange.
The best international options are N26, Revolut, and Wise (for money transfer). N26 partners with some ATMs so that you can withdraw money with no fees. But do your own research and figure out what works for you (this is a good thread to start).
What documents do you need to set up a bank account? You’ll need a valid passport, proof of residence, proof of address. Presumably you’ll have all of these documents before you arrive in the country, so there’s no additional effort. For the address, you can also use a hostel or P.O. Box — this can be changed later on. Since these services rely heavily on mobile banking, you’ll want a Swiss phone number that you can attach to the account.
Swiss Neobanks Offering Private Accounts with Payment Cards:
Travel from and within Switzerland is regarded (by expats) as one of the best countries in the world. Trains and trams are the primary means of public transport in Switzerland. Train timetables are some of the most organised and punctual in the world. It takes only 10 minutes for someone to travel from the city centre of Zurich to the Airport.
Here are the different types of transportation:
🚆 Trains: Switzerland’s trains are operated by Swiss Federal Railways. The federal railways operate under a different name depending on the region. You’ll see abbreviations of SBB, CFF, and FFS. There are five different train services in Switzerland. Intercity (IC), InterRegio (IR), RegioExpress (RE), S-Bahn, Regio (R). For travelling within your city, you’ll use the S-Bahn. Ticket prices are quite high compared to the rest of Western Europe. But there are numerous ways to cut down on those ticket costs (especially if you are an avid traveller on the railway network). The great thing about the trains in Switzerland is that the fares are fixed, so you don’t need to book in advance to get a better price. Most travellers use the SBB mobile app to purchase tickets and organise their routes. This is the best and most convenient way to travel and avoid any unwanted fines. A fine is 100 Fr., with multiple violations costing more and risking a national train ban.
🚌 Buses/Trams: Street cars (trams) and buses are the preferred means of transportation in the city. The dense network and frequent services connect you to every point of the city. Since all of the transport companies are untied, one ticket can be used on all forms of transportation (this includes the S-Bahn). Instead of buying one-time tickets through a machine or app you can get monthly or annual tickets which will cover all travel and save you money and time.
✈️ Flights: Switzerland is centrally located in Europe, so it’s inexpensive to travel within the EU. This will often be cheaper than travelling by train. You can get a flight from Zurich to London for around 50 Fr (round trip) or one-way to Lisbon 38 Fr or New York for 220 Fr. While many expats might find Switzerland lonely and ‘boring’ they praise ease of travel from and to Switzerland.
Food & Drink
Food and Drink
Food and drink in Switzerland (like most things) is going to be on the pricier side. An inexpensive meal in Zurich will set you back 25 Fr (~€25) whereas in Berlin you’d only pay €17. There’s probably a 50% increase in the price of most food and drink when compared to other major cities in Europe.
When it comes to meat, there’s about a 100% - 300% price increase. Where you might spend €15 on one kilogram of beef in Berlin, you’ll be spending around €57 in Switzerland. Why is meat so expensive? For a couple of reasons. High taxes on imported meat. Most of the cows are also dairy cows (not for eating), and then there are labour costs.
Despite the higher cost of food and drink in Switzerland, gastronomy is highly regarded. Swiss cheese, beer, and chocolate are some of the best in the world. In cities, like Zurich or Geneva, you’ll find numerous Michelin star restaurants and top cuisine from all around the world. Be prepared to pay top dollar, though.
Wages and Taxes
Wages & Taxes
Average Tax Rate
Average Wage Increase
We’ve mentioned how the cost of living is much higher in Switzerland, well, thankfully, the wages are much higher too. The average salary in Switzerland is CHF 79,980 (around €80k). This wage is probably the highest in Western Europe. In comparison, the average wage in Germany is around €47,700 — that’s a huge difference.
The tax system in Switzerland is also more beneficial for a high income individual compared to other EU states. If you earn the average wage of 80k Fr. you’ll pay around 10k Fr. in taxes. For the same salary in Germany, you’ll pay €32k in taxes.
We’re not going to go through the entire tax system, the important thing to know is that there are a lot of tax breaks — as Switzerland is considered a tax haven. That’s why there are a lot of self-made businessmen and crypto millionaires living there. There are also nine paid holidays in Switzerland.
Cost of Living
Cost of Living
Avg. expenses single person
Avg. expenses family
Most expensive city
As we have already mentioned, Switzerland has a very high cost of living. Outside of rent, a single person might spend upwards of 1,538.1 Fr a month on food & drink, activities, utilities, transportation, etc. And with a one-bedroom apartment, you’re living costs will be around 4,000 Fr. per month.
For families, these costs are going to be much, much higher. The biggest additional expense is childcare. Kindergarten is around 2,765 Fr. per month and primary school is 34,583 Fr per year. While London is considered expensive for childcare, Zurich beats it by around 50%. Child care costs in Zurich are 100-300% higher than in Berlin or Munich.
There are a few ways people bring down their cost of living in Switzerland. Many workers commute from outside the cities, or even in some cases from France or Germany. In the latter case, rent and price of food is lower. Also, if you cut meat out of your diet, your grocery bill is going to be much lighter. But there’s really no way around it, in you are going to live in Switzerland, make sure you are being paid well.
Swiss culture is similar to German and Austrian culture. Expats might find it hard to connect with people, given their reserved nature and their hesitancy towards friendship. There is a lot of respect around privacy and personal matters. If you are an expat from outside of Europe (Australia, UK, or USA) here are some social norms to help you integrate:
💬 Direct communication: Swiss people are very direct in their communication style. Even if you are coming from a ‘direct’ culture like Australia or UK, there is an obvious absence of subtly, which can make some communication seem rude. Remember, there’s a language barrier and a cultural barrier.
♻️ Recycling: People in Switzerland are very environmentally conscious and take matters of waste disposal very serious. The government is also progressive in areas of waste management, so make sure you are separating your rubbish and following the guidelines.
🥂 Clinking glasses: When you are taking a drink with someone, it is custom to clink your glasses together while looking them in the eye. The same goes for a large group of people. It is something that is done, and you will be called out if you don’t do it.
⛰️ Polite culture: Swiss people are very respectful and polite. For example, you might ask if a seat is taken on the train before sitting down (even if it’s obviously not taken). It is common to never initiate contact with someone unless there is a reason to do so. When hiking, it is customary to greet every person you meet.
🤐 Private matters: It can be considered rude/taboo to speak about private matters. Private matters include money, religion, politics, and your love life. These matters are not discussed casually or in public.
💰Tipping culture: Switzerland has a tipping culture. Most people round up to the nearest number or use the 10% rule. In a bar or café, there is no pressure to tip unless the service was very good.
How safe is Switzerland?
Switzerland is considered to be one of the safest countries in Europe. There is low risk in virtually every aspect of daily life. Female solo travellers have nothing to worry about. The only physical risks are from the snow sports, so make sure you suit up.
Switzerland has a mix of public and private healthcare systems where the government regulates the healthcare act while non-profit private providers offer health insurance. Medical insurance in Switzerland is mandatory, and all residents must purchase a health insurance plan after entering the country. The price varies from canton to canton, but generally (for an adult) the cost is around 300 Fr. - 400 Fr. annually.
Finding work in Switzerland
At WeAreDevelopers, we help match tech professionals with German, Austrian, and Swiss companies. Open an online account in just minutes and browse through job opportunities from some great companies in Switzerland. If you’re still not sold on living in Switzerland, check out some of the other tech hubs in Europe, or you can read more about living in Germany, Austria and France. Good luck!
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